Conflicting Responsibilities

I’m in a quandary: I’ve got a humdinger of a dilemma. A puzzling parenting predicament to ponder.

J & L will be 4 years old in March, and after lengthy discussion have decided they want a “Ben and Holly” themed birthday party. For those of you not familiar with “Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom”, it is a children’s cartoon about Princess Holly the fairy, and her friend Ben who is an elf.

L had the idea that all the party guests could come dressed as fairies or elves, which was met with enthusiasm by J – though when I suggested that L dress as Holly and J as Ben, J replied “I don’t want to be Ben, I want to be the Wise Old Elf”. I reassured him that this was not a problem, and I would get him a long white beard to go with his elf costume.

The next day it was evident that J had been giving the party some thought. He told me he had changed his mind and no longer wanted to dress as the Wise Old Elf, but now wanted to be a fairy. “That’s fine” I replied. “King Thistle is a fairy, you could have a crown and wings just like him?” J seemed satisfied with this response. But then a couple of days later J told me “I don’t want to be King Thistle. I want to be Holly”.

For as long as J and L have been playing “dress-up” J has enjoyed putting on pretty dresses. Sometimes he asks for lip-gloss too and announces to the mirror “I’m a very pretty girl!”: I have never questioned his choice or his right to do so, and haven’t given too much thought as to the reasons, as I couldn’t do more than guess even if I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Maybe he hears me telling L how pretty she looks in her princess costume and wants to receive the same compliment. Maybe the social difficulties caused by his autism mean he is less aware of gender-based notions of appropriate clothing. Maybe his sensory difficulties mean dresses are more physically comfortable for him than trousers. Maybe he is gay or transgender. Maybe he enjoys the joke of wearing the “wrong” clothes in the same way he often laughs when he says something of which he knows the opposite to be true.

The point is, it doesn’t matter. At home he is free to wear what makes him happy and be a beautiful fairy princess alongside his sister. He doesn’t always choose the dress when we’re putting costumes on – sometimes he is Iggle Piggle; sometimes he is the Grand Old Duke of York; sometimes he is a robot. But the choice is always his.

And so to my dilemma. Do I let J go to his own birthday party as Holly, wearing a pink sparkly dress and fairy wings? To be honest at first it didn’t even occur to me to tell him “no”. But then I got thinking. And now I’m confused. For every argument for letting him wear the dress, I can think of an equally valid counter-argument. Maybe a list of pros and cons might help …

Reasons to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. He should be able to express himself in whatever way makes him happy.
  2. It won’t hurt anyone, and if people don’t like it that’s their problem.
  3. L can choose whatever she wants to wear (I wouldn’t stop her being an elf) so why shouldn’t J?
  4. It will be hard to explain why he can’t be “Holly” whilst still making it clear that his general preferences are valid and acceptable.
  5. We should be setting an example to other children that they should be tolerant and accepting of difference.
  6. A parent should teach their child to stay true to themselves rather than conform to please the masses.

Reasons not to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. The other children might say hurtful things, either at the party or in the future.
  2. The other parents might judge us and talk negatively about J or me – to each other and to their children.
  3. J might be stigmatised for a long time as “the boy who wore a dress”.
  4. J already acts differently to his peers due to his autism – wearing a dress will only serve to accentuate his differences.
  5. There will be lots of other opportunities for J to dress up in pretty costumes without doing it in such a public way.
  6. It is normal practise to invite every child in the class therefore there will be a lot of children and parents at the party who I don’t know, and who don’t understand J.

All I can say is that I am pleased I don’t have to rush into a decision. I believe that I have a clear responsibility to teach J to be true to himself and not ever feel he has to conform to please others. I also believe I have a clear responsibility to help J understand socially acceptable behaviour and to protect him from a world that is not always accepting of difference. My problem is in deciding which responsibility takes precendence in this instance.

I can see that there is a third option here – a compromise costume. Maybe J could wear a pink top with trousers and fairy wings. And I’m not ruling that out … but for the purposes of this discussion that essentially equates to telling J he can’t wear a dress and be Holly at his party, as this is certainly how he will see it.

So to anyone who is reading this post – I would genuinely love to know your thoughts. I’m not considering “parenting by majority vote” but it would be great to know what you’d honestly think if you saw a little boy in a pink fairy dress. Tell me what you’d do in my shoes?!

Maybe asking for your opinions is highlighting for me the most difficult part of being a single parent. I had thought the most difficult part was not having someone else to take a turn when you’re called for the tenth time during the night. Or having to turn down fun social invitations because you can’t find a babysitter. Or caring for two children when you’re ill. But it turns out I was wrong: the toughest part of single parenting is having to take full responsibility for the most difficult decisions. Being solely accountable if the decision ends up being the wrong one.

I guess I need to accept that sometimes I’ll make the right decisions as a mother and sometimes I’ll make the wrong decisions. The important thing is that all my choices are made with the very best intentions … made because I adore my children and want nothing more than their lasting happiness. And more than anything else, whatever I decide about J’s party costume, I think all I can really hope is that he’ll look back one day and say “Mum [didn’t] let me wear a fairy dress to my party because she loves me”. Whether J’s preference for wearing pretty dresses lasts six months or sixty years, as long as he knows his Mum loves him completely, truly and unconditionally forever, I will be happy to accept I’ve done a good job.

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The Man With The Nice Eyes

This afternoon I was travelling up the escalator at my local shopping mall.  I glanced across to the parallel escalator.  A man was staring at me.  I looked away, then risked a second glance.  Still staring.  I raised my eyebrows at him in a “Yes, can I help you?” expression.  He smiled at me.  We stepped off of our respective escalators at the same moment, and he fell into step with me as I walked.  Starting to feel a little uncomfortable I quickened my pace: the man sped up too.

“I’m sorry for staring!” he exclaimed.  “I just thought I knew you.  You look a lot like my … errr …. sister’s …. ummm …. friend”.  I stopped and turned to him.  “Oh right” I said, feeling this man’s behaviour could only possibly be explained by axe-murdering intentions.  My eyes scanned the packed shopping mall for a security guard.  “I’m pretty sure I don’t know your sister”.  “No, my mistake” said the man, and smiled.  I noticed his eyes.  Warm and kind, and mahogany-dark.  “Anyway, sorry for staring”.

“No worries” I replied, and continued walking.  The man hurried to catch up.  “Busy today, isn’t it?” he offered.  “Mmmm” I murmured non-committally.  He tried again.  “Are you from round here?” I replied with a curt “Yes”, before turning towards a shop.  “Listen!” said the man with nice eyes.  “Could I take you for a coffee?”

I did not pause even for a second before replying “No.  Thanks.” The man gave me another sheepish smile before disappearing into the heaving Boxing Day crowds.

Of course I wasn’t going to go for a coffee with a crazy man, no matter how inviting his smile and lovely his eyes.  What kind of maniac behaved like that?  As I finished my shopping and headed back to my car, I mulled over the conversation.  If this had been a film rather than real-life, the man’s behaviour would have been presented as sweet and quirky and romantic.  The encounter would have no doubt been the start of something beautiful and lasting.  Maybe I should have gone for a coffee with him.  He was hardly going to butcher me in the middle of Costa.

I stopped myself.  I was getting carried away .. daydreaming and romanticising (as I freely admit I am prone to doing).  I reminded myself the whole notion was ridiculous.  The man was clearly a lunatic: I was wearing saggy jeans and an old sweatshirt; my hair was a frizzy mess; I had no make-up on … what kind of sane, reasonable man would have stalked me across a shopping mall to ask me on a date?

And then it dawned on me.  My suspicion about the man’s behaviour was about the way I perceive myself rather than the way I perceived him.  It just didn’t seem conceivable to me that the man with nice eyes could have found me so irresistably attractive that he was willing to completely humiliate himself in the hope that I would agree to a date.  Unless he was some kind of nutter of course.  Only then was I willing to believe I was desirable to him.  After all, the romantic male lead in the movie would have acted in a similar way in pursuit of a stunning model-esque beauty.  Not a short, dumpy, middle-aged Mum.

Who knows?  Maybe the man with nice eyes was planning to hack me into tiny pieces before dumping my dismembered body in a river.  Maybe he just thought I looked nice, and like someone he wanted the chance to know.  Or maybe he found me captivating, alluring and irresistable, and is now sobbing into a cappuccino-for-one.  It’s probably a good thing that I’ll never know the answer.  Because just for a minute, I could believe I was the leading lady getting chatted up by a handsome, funny, eligible man with nice eyes.  And that thought left me smiling the whole way home.

I Own My Happiness

The last week has been a turbulent time for me, emotion-wise. I’ve been excited about my first Christmas morning with just me and my children and without the inevitable stress and arguments that came with previous years. I’ve been content that our house is looking tidy, cosy and inviting. I’ve been anxious about how my relations will feel during our first Christmas without a beloved family member. I’ve been exhausted, caring for a sick child throughout the night for two nights running. I’ve been frustrated that when I asked for help from the person who should be first in line to share the care of my children, we did not feature as a high enough priority. I’ve been furious that J & L keep being let down, with me having to comfort them and deal with the fall-out. I’ve been sad at what this means in the long-term for J & L. I’ve been hurt that I have been spoken to aggressively and disrespectfully. Like I said – a whole lot of emotions to deal with. But mostly, this week, the excitement and contentedness have been overshadowed by anxiety, anger, sadness and hurt. This week I’ve cried a lot.

I’ve cried in frustration at another person’s selfishness. I’ve cried with worry and exhaustion as L spent 48 hours vomiting – and without the back-up and sounding board I needed and asked for. I’ve cried in despair as I have been completely unable to persuade another person to behave reasonably. I’ve cried with the hurt I felt at the mean, personal, unfair things that have been said to me. Each time I cried, I felt myself sink a little deeper into unhappiness, and a little less able to regain my usual positivity and optimism.

This week someone took my happiness.

Happiness is a valuable and tangible resource that each of us needs to be strong. The more of it we have, the better our own lives and the lives of those around us. And it’s a self-perpetuating commodity – happiness breeds happiness. The more you can find and the more you can keep within your grasp, the more you and your loved ones will have. Happiness is the ultimate goal for humankind … whatever we are striving for, be it love, wealth or fame, it is because we believe these things will bring us happiness.

Happiness is also transferable. One person can take another’s happiness and keep it as their own. When someone used carefully calculated words to hurt and defeat me this week, the aim was not only to reduce my happiness but to increase their own – through the feelings of power and importance they achieved from their unkindness. This left me feeling helpless – someone was continuing to eat away at my happiness piece by piece, and I felt powerless to stop them.

Until I realised. My happiness was not being taken. It was being given. Each time I cried, I was cleaving off a chunk of my own happiness, putting it in a box, wrapping it in sparkly paper and ribbons, and willingly handing it over to someone who could use it in any way they chose.

So from yesterday I stopped handing out my happiness and started to think about how to hold on to it tightly. My happiness is not up for grabs – it is mine, and it is up to me to find ways to safeguard it. So I stopped replying to provocative text messages. I told people what was happening so I could feel supported. I focused on positive things happening in my life. And, remembering that happiness breeds happiness, I put my energy into things that make me happy, like having a tidy home, spending time with friends, planning treats for my children and finishing my Christmas wrapping.

The pile of presents, ready and waiting for Tuesday, looks hugely inviting and appealing. I’m very excited to see the faces of my loved-ones as they unwrap my carefully-chosen gifts. This Christmas I’ll be giving more gifts than ever before, but my happiness will not be amongst them. That is mine to keep. You can share my happiness, but you can’t have it.

J’s First Friend

I worry about my kids all the time. I know this is natural. When you’re a Mum it’s part and parcel of the job description to spend our days frightening ourselves with all the imaginary obstacles that could get in the way of our little darlings’ happiness, safety or general amazingness.

When J was first diagnosed with autism, my worries shot through the roof, and once pre-school loomed on the horizon my anxieties had reach the outer stratosphere. I wasn’t concerned with how J would cope with the work at school as he is extremely intelligent. At three years old he knows the difference between a pentagon, a hexagon and an octagon. He had to be told the names of trapeziums and parallelograms once and they were ingrained in his mind. He can name double-digits numbers (ie he sees 63 and says “sixty-three”). He can read. And we’re not talking “cat” and “dog”. We’re talking flashcards in the kitchen that say “radiator”, “drawer” and “dishwasher”. He has an astonishing memory. No, his learning abilities at school were not something that gave me cause for concern. What I was worried about were J’s social skills.

So many times I have seen him wanting to get involved with the other children in the playground, but not knowing where to start. He tries to start conversations with other children, but they can be stilted and awkward (“Hello Girl. I am J.”) or just plain baffling for the other child (“Do you want to come to Sarah Beeny’s house?”). He has had plenty of exposure to other children, through his twin sister and his cousins, and through my friends’ children, but by and large plays alongside them rather than with them, and is unable to grasp the nuances and complexities of pre-school play.

Friends told me time and time again that J would be fine at school – he would excel in all his subjects, take his A-Levels early and go on to win Nobel prizes and change the world. But I couldn’t care less about any of that. I just want him to be happy. If a genie offered me one wish for J it would be for him to have joyful, meaningful relationships throughout his life – with friends, colleagues, a life-partner. And this is where I was terrified that school would just be too big a challenge for him to manage.

It is now two months since J started pre-school and I have been delighted to hear him talking about his classmates at home. His keyworker tells me that he knows every child’s name and has started trying to engage them in conversation. She has observed that sometimes his play has moved from playing alongside, to playing with. I was very happy, but still conscious of the fact that J’s rituals, behaviours and idiosyncracies can be something of a mystery to other children. Recently at a friend’s house J launched into one of his ritualistic behaviours, and the friend’s little girl said loudly to her mother: “See! I told you he was strange!” My poor friend was mortified and I had to reassure her that I was not offended in the slightest – to her daughter J’s behaviour was strange and I was pleased to have the chance to explain to her how J sees the world a little differently, and what she could do to be a good friend to him. I did not mind at all that the little girl had voiced her confusion about J, but I did mind terribly that his future classmates would, most likely, also think of him as “the strange one”.

But today something miraculous happened.

As I was dropping my children off at school I started talking to another Mum. And she told me that her son had specifically asked if J could come round to play. “Yes!” I exclaimed, “Yes, that would be wonderful!”. I got into my car and cried the whole way home. Then I phoned my Mum to tell her, and cried some more.

So my darling little boy has done it again. I was surprised when he picked up the names of different shapes so easily. I was astonished when he recalled information he had heard over a year ago. I was flabbergasted when he read four-syllable words that he’d only been shown once. But all of that pales into insignificance at how I feel today, knowing he has made a friend all by himself. I should not be surprised. Anyone who gets to know J falls in love with him. He is sweet and quirky and wickedly funny. And I should have known that, given the chance, he would show everyone who met him how wonderful he is. So J’s first play date is on the horizon. And yes, I will be a little anxious at how he will cope in an unfamiliar house and with a family who don’t know his needs. But I also know he’ll be fine. Because today I feel like there’s nothing my little boy can’t do. And I’m the proudest Mum in the world.

What’s Wrong With The YOLO Kids?

I first became aware of YOLO a few months ago. Waaaaaay behind every teenager in the Western world, but definitely earlier than plenty of people my own age. In fact it was teenagers who caused YOLO to first enter my consciousness – I had noticed that my handful of Facebook friends who are 15-20 years younger than me were using it in response to each other’s photos and comments, usually accompanied by an exclamation mark and a smiley face. Not daring to admit my ignorance and actually ask these kids what they were going on about (for more on this, see my post: https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/is-ignorance-really-bliss/), I turned instead to my trusty friend Wikipedia.

And so I started to understand YOLO. I discovered that it stands for “You Only Live Once”, and embodies the idea that life should be embraced and lived to its fullest. YOLO means life is too short for “what ifs” and “if onlys” and that every opportunity for enjoyment and fulfilment should be grasped with both hands. I was enthralled. So, so often young people are dismissed as lazy and apathetic, supposedly unwilling to seek out the good things in life and instead sit in front of their Playstations and Blackberrys waiting for good things to come to them. Yet YOLO seemed to me to be the antithesis of this image. Teenagers had essentially rebranded “Carpe Diem” with a 21st Century twist, and were going out into the world ready to seize the day.

But then I read on. And discovered there is more to YOLO than I first realised. I read article after article crticising YOLO culture, claiming that young people use YOLO to justify reckless and dangerous behaviour. www.urbandictionary.com defines YOLO as:

The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did:
Guy 1: “Hey I heard u got that girl pregnant”
Dumbass 1: ” Ya man but hey, YOLO”

The more I read the more I began to understand the true meaning of YOLO. Rather than the exciting idea that droves of teenagers are suddenly filled with a new resolve to live life to its fullest, it seems they are, in fact, excusing behaviour that is dangerous, selfish, illegal, and plain stupid – all with a shrug and a grin as they proudly state “YOLO!”  Of course, the idea of teenagers pushing boundaries and behaving recklessly is nothing new.  I did it, my friends did it, and I’m sure my parents and grandparents did it too.  But what is new is the notion that they have found in YOLO a cast-iron justification for this behaviour.

But surely YOLO doesn’t have to used in such a negative way? Surely the potential is still there for it to represent the idea of making every day count? Surely YOLO can mean life’s too short for dwelling on hurt and anger, and that instead we should always be looking forwards, grasping every exciting opportunity that comes our way? Is there really such a fine line between bravery and stupidity? What is the difference between spontaneously seizing opportunities, and making reckless, impulsive decisions?

One of my absolute core beliefs is in the responsibility each of us have to ourselves, to make our own lives the very best they can be.  And to that end, there should never be any “what ifs” and “if onlys”.  It’s important to stretch and challenge our own limits, and to take risks.  After all.  You only live once.  But of course risks don’t always pay off.  Sometimes we will seize an opportunity only to find ourselves picking up the shattered pieces and cursing our own stupidity.

But when it comes down to it, I think there are two significant differences between us (what I like to think of as “the Carpe Diem generation”) and the YOLO kids.  The first one is our intentions.  We all make mistakes (for more on this see my post: https://throughacceptinglimits.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/i-am-not-my-mistakes/) and sometimes these have serious consequences.  But if our actions were carried out with the right intentions, we should not feel bad about the outcome.  The second difference is our reaction.  To shrug your shoulders and proudly announce “YOLO!” is a far cry from being horrified at the aftermath of a risk-gone-wrong, and wishing we could put things right.

So, to the YOLO kids, I say this.  You’re right.  You DO only live once.  So don’t let yourself reach my age and look back with regret.  Knowingly acting in a way that is likely to cause harm or distress to yourself or others is unforgivable.  But so is allowing amazing chances to pass you by.  Don’t let yourself reach my age and wish you’d been a bit braver.  Stand up for yourself.  Stand up for other people.  Make your life and the lives of those around you as fantastic as it can possibly be.  Because hey …YOLO.